The documentary “Very Semi-Serious,” directed by Leah Wolchok, opens with a clever montage in which cartoons making fun of the city are interspersed with shots of the places they’re mocking. This sets the stage for a film all about the beauty and the absurdity of New York culture.
The documentary focuses on cartoonists at “The New Yorker,” using narration by current cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. We see his day-to-day routine as he goes through hundreds of submissions to choose the handful that will be published. He mentors cartoonists who he feels have real potential. He meets with superiors at the magazine and with editors of a memoir he is publishing. In all of this, Mankoff seems to love his job and those around him, even as he communicates almost exclusively in very dry jokes.
Using this solidly jokey narrative, Mankoff and others talk about the history of the magazine. A montage summarizes the founding of the magazine and the introduction of cartoons and famous artists, including Charles Addams and Saul Steinberg. This scene, like much of the movie, is an indulgent and nostalgic celebration of “The New Yorker,” but readers of the magazine will love it nonetheless.
The movie is reverential of the past, but it is still very much concerned with how Mankoff has pushed the cartoon section forward. As the Internet began to offer a new venue for aspiring artists and many print magazines went under, “The New Yorker” modernized. Mankoff agreed to accept submissions from anyone and started mentoring. He also made a point of bringing in voices that were different from the typical New Yorker upper-middle class style.
Many of these newer cartoonists are covered in the movie, and all of them present work that deserves attention. Newcomers Liana Finck and Ed Steed stand out as especially interesting for their new but immediately memorable cartoon styles.
There are times in which the movie gets more than semi-serious, to its detriment. One section deals with Mankoff’s grief over the death of his son. Another deals with the magazine’s response to 9/11. Both of these intrude on a generally very light tone. When dealing with such grand tragedies, the film punches above its weight.
The strength of the movie is in its interviews. Everyone involved seems legitimately engaged in a way that is rare for a documentary that relies heavily on talking heads. The artists get very personal in their discussions of their art. At times the movie is reminiscent of “Crumb,” the classic portrait of the cartoonist Robert Crumb, in its treatment of neurosis as a source of inspiration.
Wolchok’s direction is skillful without overwhelming the material. Many cartoons are shown, with enough time given to each for them to be understood. “Very Semi-Serious” is breezy, entertaining and informative much like its subject magazine.
“Very Semi-Serious” premieres on HBO on Dec. 14. For NYU students living on campus, the documentary can be accessed via HBO Go.
A version of this article appeared in the Dec. 7 print edition. Email Tony Schwab at [email protected]